Residents of the last remaining urban village in central Kuala Lumpur want their 115-year-old heritage protected.
Kampong Bharu is the last bastion against high-rise development in the centre of the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. In this urban village just north of the city centre the houses are mostly one or two storey, there are children playing outside, and cats laze around on the pavements or prowl around on the look-out for food.
KL is infamous for its traffic jams and pollution, but, in Kampong Bharu, traffic is generally light and there is plenty of room for cyclists. Most people get around by motor bike or scooter.
If developers have their way, however, the whole area will be transformed into yet another commercial concrete jungle, a “futuristic city” filled with high-rise condominiums and shopping malls. There would be 70,000 people in an area where there are currently about 17,000.
While there are those who lived in the kampong years ago who now find it overcrowded and run down, and not as safe as it used to be, it is still a stark contrast to the rest of KL, and there is strong opposition to the kind of redevelopment the government has in mind.
Kampong Bharu was set up as a Malay enclave nearly 115 years ago when the Malay states were under British rule. It is just across the tracks from KL’s Golden Triangle, where the Petronas twin towers dominate the skyline, and is a massive attraction for developers. The value of the land has been estimated at more than 1.4 billion US$.
For the government and the developers, however, changing the face of Kampong Bharu is not proving an easy task. Development has been under discussion for more than twenty years and there have been numerous meetings with local landowners and a succession of development plans, none of which has proved viable.
The Kampong Bharu Development Corporation (KBDC) is due to publish a new master plan for the settlement very soon. The corporation is going all-out to win local support, but the new plan risks being yet another white elephant.
The master plan is being drawn up by the architecture and urban planning company AJM in collaboration with AJM’s planning and urban design group, APUDG.
An “exhibition” of the plan is scheduled for March. Local people will be invited to submit their views.
Most of Kampong Bharu still has a special “Malay Agricultural Settlement” status and only Malays can buy or lease land in that area. Redevelopment cannot go ahead without the area being converted to commercial land.
The M.A.S. area comprises seven villages, covers 223 acres, and houses about 17,000 residents. There is a smaller area of Kampong Bharu (about 84 acres) that is non-M.A.S. Some of this land still belongs to the Selangor state government.
Changing the status of the M.A.S. area without local approval would be a drastic and politically risky step for the government to take and government officials have been at pains to tell locals that they are the ones to decide about the status of their land.
Since the enclave was set up, it has been administered by the M.A.S. board of management, but there are now three different agencies involved in deciding about its future: the development corporation, city hall, and M.A.S.
“And then there’s the local member of parliament,” said the secretary of the M.A.S. board of management, Shamsuri Suradi. “We need to be all meeting together, and I am trying to organise that. We need to arrive at a consensus about the way forward.”
The role of the development corporation, set up in 2012, is to be a facilitator. It is meant to mediate between local landowners and potential investors, and implement planning policies. It has been offering incentives to Kampong Bharu landowners. These include low development and land conversion charges and a high 1:10 plot ratio, which would bring landowners bigger returns than the usual 1:6 ratio as they could construct higher buildings.
The corporation has also said restrictions on land occupation could be lifted to allow the leasing of developed land to non-Malays.
There is talk of a huge sports and recreational complex named after the Dutch soccer legend Johan Cruyf being built as part of the redevelopment.
There are also plans to conserve eleven houses “of significant heritage value” and either relocate them to one site or try and integrate them in another way.
Preserving Malay heritage
Mohamad Shafiq Bin Abdul Karim is director of Akar Homestay, a new four-storey hotel in Kampong Bharu. He says it’s highly unlikely that the government will find a Malay developer with enough cash to purchase large plots of land in the area.
Kampong Bharu should be preserved as it is, Mohamad Shafiq says. “If they want to develop this area, they shouldn’t start by buying up the land owned by local people; they should improve the infrastructure – the sewerage system, the roads and the pavements.”
If Kampong Bharu is turned into a concrete jungle, Mohamad Shafiq says, it will lose all its attraction as a centre for Malay heritage.
“Why do they want to build more high-rises?” Mohamad Shafiq said. “KL is already full of high-rises. Tourists can see high-rises in their own countries; here, they want to see something different, something that conveys the heritage of this country.
“Kampong Bharu is the easiest place for foreign visitors to come and see Malay heritage, right in the city centre.”
Mohamad Shafiq says most people in Kampong Bharu share his point of view. “They are not anti-development. They just want this place to be preserved. They don’t want it developed into a high-rise commercial area.”
The government, Mohamad Shafiq says, hasn’t come up with a solution that will satisfy local people.
An already complicated situation is made even more complex because so many of the original Kampong Bharu landowners have died. Many land titles are shared by dozens of relatives, and more than 100 people are said to share the rights to some plots of land. In one case, the number of title holders is said to have reached 400.
The development corporation estimates that there are nearly 5,000 title holders to about 1,300 lots; the numbers average out at about five landowners per lot.
Kampong Bharu, which translates as the New Village, came into existence in 1899. It was set up by the British government on land granted to the Malay community by Selangor’s Sultan Abdul Samad.
On January 12, 1900, the New Village was established as the Malay Agricultural Settlement and the M.A.S. board of management was set up to administer it.
Kampong Bharu, which originally comprised nine communities, rapidly became a residential area. The idea of planting paddy fields turned out to be unworkable because of the nature of the terrain.
Today, life in the kampong is still lived at a leisurely pace. Away from the city clamour, you can hear the birds and stop to smell the flowers. There are chickens and roosters scratching around and there’s plenty of greenery – coconut palms and frangipani, mango and banana trees, and lots of bougainvillea.
Older people say there are far fewer trees than there used to be, and too few places to park, but the low-rise housing still engenders a feeling of space.
Each of Kampong Bharu’s seven villages has its own distinct character, influenced by the communities that settled there. There are areas where the original settlers hailed from Melaka and, in the early 1900s, it was the Javanese who came to stay in Kampong Paya, the area of Kampong Bharu closest to the Klang River. There were also settlers from the Rawa, Mandailing, and Minangkabau ethnic groups.
There are still lots of small traders in Kampong Bharu, which is known for its many eateries and its night markets.
While Kampong Bharu is not a major tourist attraction, foreigners who hear about the settlement are drawn there to experience some Malay authenticity and try local specialities like roti canai, satay, nasi campur, nasi impit, and nasi lemak.
There are numerous stalls selling all kinds of snacks – curry puffs, fried bananas, fried sweet potato, and fritters made from jackfruit.
You can try fresh coconut milk or the local sweet tea, teh tarik. (No alcohol is served in Kampong Bharu.)
There is a sizeable Indonesian community and many of the local eateries are run by Indonesians. Rents in the area are much cheaper than in other parts of KL, and this attracts low-earning immigrants.
Some Malays in the area resent the influx of foreigners and say that Kampong Bharu has lost its Malay character.
The areas along the main roads are now very built up, with some high-rises appearing on the northern edge of the kampong. However, for now , apart from the Plaza Rah, a couple of apartment blocks, and a few four- or five-storey constructions, most buildings are village-style homes or one-storey bungalows.
Many of the wooden, zinc-roofed buildings are very dilapidated and the area behind the underground station is in a particularly sorry state. Kampong Bharu could clearly do with serious renovation, but few people want to see it turned into yet another soulless cityscape.
Rahimah Mohd Nordin, who owns the Nasi Lamak Malaya restaurant, says the government isn’t taking the views of local people into consideration. “It should be listening to what we have to say. We don’t want Kampong Bharu to be redeveloped.
“And it’s not just local people who want to preserve the atmosphere of the area; tourists love to come here and experience kampong life right next to the twin towers.
“Why can’t they preserve Kampong Bharu like they have preserved areas of Penang and Melaka?”
A stage in Kampong Bharu, which had been abandoned, but is now being renovated and will again be the venue for cultural performances.
(Photo taken by Mohd Farid Rahmat in January 2013.)
Baki Bin Hussein, aged 75, may be exaggerating a bit when he says he’d have to be offered 4,000 ringgits (about 1,200 US$) per square foot to be persuaded to sell up, but he clearly wouldn’t move out of his kampong house for much less.
“I’ve only been offered 400 so far,” said Baki, who was born and raised in Kampong Bharu and wants to spend the rest of his days there. “Don’t ask me why I love this place so much; I just do. My mother was born here, in 1916. In those days, there were no zinc roofs; there was rumbia (sago palm) on top of the houses.”
Baki doesn’t want to see high-rises in Kampung Bharu, and certainly doesn’t want to live in one himself.
An eventful past
Kampong Bharu has a chequered history and has been the site of numerous political protests. There were anti-colonial protests during the pro-independence movement after World War II and riots in May 1969 after the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party led a march through the area to celebrate its good showing in general elections.
The official government account is that the May 13 violence was caused by opposition parties, but it has been alleged that the unrest was orchestrated by elite elements within the ruling United Malays National Organisation to cement Malay control over the country.
Kampong Bharu was also the site of Reformasi demonstrations in October 1998, when the former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, launched protests against then premier, Mahathir Mohamad, calling for reforms to government and the judiciary. Demonstrators gathered in front of the Kampong Bharu mosque.
Most of the Jamek mosque is now being demolished. The mosque committee has decided that the modern minaret will remain, but the rest of the building is to be torn down. The argument is that more space is required, and the original structure is in bad condition.
There is astonishment among locals who don’t understand why the old mosque isn’t simply being extended. “They could have extended the mosque while preserving the existing building,” said Mohamad Shafiq. His viewpoint is widely shared.
Rahimah says it’s outrageous that locals were not consulted about the mosque redevelopment. “That would have been simple courtesy – to ask the opinions of the local people.
“The mosque was built by our ancestors. It is a building that is meaningful for this community. I am very sad that it is being knocked down. There won’t be the same spirit in the new building.”
First constructed in 1924, the mosque was rebuilt in 1955. The government has allocated 20 million ringgits (nearly 6 million US$) for its redevelopment and Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak has described the mosque redevelopment as the “catalyst” for the entire Kampong Bharu facelift.
Journalist Mohsin Abdullah wrote in the business and investment weekly The Edge in 2012 that the mosque’s character had been left untouched by previous repairs. It did need a new look, but demolishing it entirely would be like striking at the soul of the kampong. “Tearing it down means tearing down history,” Mohsin wrote.
Could it be, he asked, that the government was bulldozing its way ahead despite not having convinced all the residents to accept its plan.
Shamsuri says that Kampong Bharu landowners were previously being given options about the kind of changes they wanted, but were now being pressured into doing the development corporation’s bidding. “The government should be helping locals to rebuild their houses,” he said.
“The developers are opportunists who are not thinking about what local people actually need. It’s a bit like persuading people to eat spaghetti when their staple food is rice. People don’t need a hypermarket in this area.”
In the early days, the M.A.S. board of management functioned as a local government body; it granted approval for people to reside in the settlement and build houses, but retained the land titles. It monitored and approved construction work and ensured that only registered residents were living in the settlement.
In 1965, the Selangor state chief minister began giving residents qualified titles to their land and landowners were able to obtain soft loans from the Selangor state development corporation to build two-storey houses.
Landowners were only allowed to build residential houses and had to get special permission from the management board if they wanted to use their land for commercial purposes.
“It is still up to the landowners whether or not their land is used for commercial purposes, and they still need to keep us informed,” Shamsuri said.
Kampong Bharu (also spelt Kampung Baru or Kampong Baharu) used to be in the state of Selangor, but, in 1974, it was incorporated into the new Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur and KL city hall took on the role of managing and developing the area.
“The government needs to get the M.A.S. board of management properly involved,” Shamsuri said. “It needs to recognise our role, not sideline us. They should conduct a proper local referendum about development and engage in genuine consultation.”
Shamsuri says Kampong Bharu people have to decide what kind of lifestyle they want in the future. Most of the landowners don’t live in the area anymore, he says, so a lot of its soul is already lost.
“The northern part of Kampong Bharu has already gone to the automobile company Naza. About 38 percent of the area has already been sold.
“Then there are the political views and beliefs that divide the people here; we cannot get a core local decision. Often people are afraid to speak out because they want to protect their own financial interests.”
Shamsuri says any commercial development of Kampong Bharu should take place on the northern and southwestern fringes of the settlement, with high-rises only near the main roads. The central areas, he says, should remain low-density and residential.
“The identity of these inner areas needs to be left intact. There needs to be a balance. You have to think about the effects of development in terms of congestion and traffic flow, in terms of the environmental effects. These are things that have to be studied.”
Researchers from the Kyoto university in Japan did conduct an environmental study in Kampong Bharu, which was published in 2009.
The study points to the reduction in gardens in the area (people concreting over gardens to park their cars), and to the fact that a high wall now cuts off local people’s access to the Klang River. (It also protects the area from flooding.)
There is also a cemetery on the south side of the river that people used to reach via a bridge, but redevelopment has also cut off that access.
“The developers promised that there would be a bridge so that people could get to the cemetery,” Shamsuri said. “But that bridge was never built. Instead, we have our very own Berlin Wall.
“Going to the cemetery was a ritual for my parents every Friday. We would all go there as a family. When the wall was built, it was yet another loss for us and our culture, another cutting off of connections. And in this case it is the connection between life and death, the connection with our ancestors.”
The Japanese researchers found that basic infrastructure for tourists was lacking in Kampong Bharu.
The report recommends tourism promotion to boost the local economy, active participation in environmental activities, building an appropriate waste management system, and more collaboration between the local communities.
A negative perception of immigrants has prevailed among local Malaysians, the report says. “Building a collaborative relationship between the two groups is a must to achieve sustainable eco-development.”
Researchers from Paris have also shown interest in the impact of development on Kampong Bharu and the Asian Research Center for Housing has produced several publications about traditional and vernacular houses in the area.
Shamsuri says nearly 68 percent of Kampong Bharu landowners have moved away and are now renting out their properties. “Sadly it’s often only very basic repairs that get done.”
To sell or not to sell
Mohamad Shafiq says some local people want to sell their land because they need the money, “but the government doesn’t have money to pay what they are asking”.
One Kampong Bharu restaurant owner, who prefers not to be named, said: “There are people here who have no money, but are sitting on land worth millions. If they are offered the right price, of course they will sell.”
Jalaluddin Abdul Aziz, who lives with other members of his family in a house built by his grandfather in 1932, says he will never sell up to developers. “Money can always be found, but we could never replace this house, which has been home to three generations of my family.”
The government has proposed a joint venture deal, in which locals are given a “benefit in kind” rather than a cash payment for their land. They would share the strata title of the skyscraper built on the site, getting one or more apartments in the new building.
“That is not a good solution,” Mohamad Shafiq said, “because the project could be unfinished and the locals could end up with nothing. Most people are against this idea.”
Azman Naman, who runs the Kamdin general store, says he is not against development, but he doesn’t want his area to end up like other parts of KL that have developed too fast and now have no soul.
He cites Bukit Bintang, a rough-edged, commercial area of the capital known for its IT shopping malls.
“We want Kampong Bharu to be developed according to our wishes,” added Azman, who says he wouldn’t sell his land, even for 1,500 ringgits (about 450 US$) per square foot.
Locals have been offered just a few hundred ringitts per square foot for their land when lots near the twin towers go for up to 1,500.
Food stallholder Ramlan Latif’s grandparents were born in Kampong Bharu. “If the developers come in, that will be the end of our lifestyle here,” he said. “We must continue fighting to keep this area as it is now.
“We were told we could have small apartments in the new condos, but that doesn’t interest me at all.”
Both Shamsuri and Mohamad Shafiq talk about people needing to know where they come from; needing to be in touch with their history. Some people are selling up, Shamsuri says, especially those with land near to the main road, but, at the end of the day, they feel sad about leaving their homes.
There may be less community spirit in Kampong Bharu now than when he was young, Shamsuri says, but in some areas it still exists.
“If the government fails to protect the spirit and identity of this area there will be regrets. In 50 or 100 years’ time, they will look back and see how much culture has been lost.”
Shamsuri is scathing about the number of Kampong Bharu development plans the government has published – at the taxpayers’ expense.
“These plans cost millions to produce. A city hall plan for the area, drawn up in 2007, has now been thrown in the bin. Why don’t they adapt that one instead of starting all over again? And why don’t they consult properly with the people before drawing up these plans?”
Many of KL city hall’s development projects have turned out to be failures, Shamsuri says. “If they take the same approach in Kampong Bharu, it’s a recipe for disaster.”
Shamsuri cites the Vision City or Bandar Wawasan development, which is in a non-M.A.S. area of Kampong Bharu. It was started in 1995, but has never been completed. The developers, RHB Daewoo, abandoned the project after building three high-rise office blocks. In 2007, they sold the project on to another company, Quill Retail Malls, for 430 million ringgit (about 128 million US$).
The cost of development
Mohd Farid Rahmat, who takes tourists on cycle tours of Kampong Bharu and other areas of KL, was born in Kampung Bharu. His great-great-grandfather was one of the first settlers.
“If the developers take Kampong Bharu,” he said, “I won’t have a home town anymore. I’m afraid that one day, if people ask me where I’m from, there will be no more Kampong Bharu to speak of. Surely this area merits UNESCO protection.”
Lilli Ismail now lives in Kampong Bharu and works at the Nasi Lamak Malaya restaurant. She stays in a beautiful wooden house, built in 1959. She enjoys living in the area because it reminds her of the kampong in Penang where she was brought up, which no longer exists.
“I was born in Sabah, but was raised in Penang; in Sungai Tiram. I had Chinese neighbours and Indian neighbours and had a kampong life, but the developers took the village and the locals had to live in apartments or terraced houses. I am very sad to think that my kampong isn’t there anymore; that it’s now all just concrete.
“My father and some of the older kampong people fought against the development, but the majority were in favour.”
Seventy-one-year-old Halimah Jaffar lived in Kampong Bharu from the age of two until she was 24. “It used to be a very peaceful place and there was a great community spirit. Weddings would last for four or five days and everyone would join in to do the cooking. As children, we could run from one garden to the other; there were no dividing fences between the houses. There were lots of trees around the houses, but there are not so many trees anymore.”
Halimah used to part own a 10,000-square-foot plot of land, which was sold in 2003 for about 1.3 million ringgits (about 390,000 US$). For Halimah, the area had become too overcrowded, with lots of properties rented out and no room to park. It suited the family to sell at that time, but Halimah is totally against the area being filled with skyscrapers.
“Who will benefit? What will happen to the people of Kampong Bharu? They’ve had meeting after meeting after meeting, but the opposition to redevelopment is still strong. There is a lot of anger against the government. It should be thinking about how to develop the area properly, not bullying people and trying to rob them of their properties. People should be given loans to upgrade their houses.”
Halimah fears that some locals might be persuaded to sell up for strata-title deals and will end up in debt, even homeless, in their own kampong. The developers, she says, can’t be trusted. “When I think about what could happen, I feel like crying.”
Both Halimah and her daughter, Mas Zuhara Zubir, have tears in their eyes when they think about the proposed redevelopment and the way locals are being treated.
Mas Zuhara wants to see at least part of Kampong Bharu preserved “so it will still be here for the next generations to see”. People should be paid a fair price for their land, she says, and the government should stop treating locals as if they were stupid.
She says, however, that she doesn’t feel safe in the kampong anymore. “It is like a slum area now. Residents are living in very close proximity because people have extended their houses so much. I remember running all around the outside of our house as a child, chasing the hens. I had space.”
Older landowners, including those who have left the area, have a strong emotional link to Kampong Bharu, Mas Zuhara says. “It’s a very sensitive issue.”
Shamsuri is passionate about the history of Kampong Bharu and has put together a book of old photographs that he will launch at 115-year anniversary celebrations in January 2015.
Shamsuri is currently tracking down information so that there’s an accurate list of title holders. “There are about 26 lots still belonging to M.A.S. People have been staying on this land for more than 100 years, but no-one has claimed these titles. We want to ensure that the lots go to the right landowners, the descendants of the original residents.”
The M.A.S. board of management still has a monitoring role in Kampong Bharu, and does a great deal to help members of the local community. It is working with a local university on social awareness and child wellness programmes.
There are many who just see Kampong Bharu in terms of its commercial value. Professor in international and industrial relations Syed Raisudin, who often goes to the area for lunch, considers that any loss of history and heritage is the price that has to be paid for development. Local people, he says, should be able to reap the financial rewards of having such valuable land.
“There are those who do not want the area to be transformed and that is understandable, he said, “but I believe it is only a matter of time before those who are in favour of redevelopment will influence those who are against it, or have mixed feelings.
“I think the number of people that support redevelopment will eventually outnumber the rest and Kampong Bharu will be redeveloped.”
The KBDC says development doesn’t have to mean an end to Malay culture in the area and insists that there is flexibility, and that it wants landowners to participate in, and benefit from, the planned redevelopment. The argument is that the local culture can be preserved with “Malay Islamic architecture, a Malay Islamic setting, and plenty of open spaces”.
Mohamad Shafiq’s view is that all this would be cosmetic. “It would still be soulless,” he said.
Federal Territories Minister Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor has been quoted as saying the government’s intention is “to help and defend the rights of the owners and heirs of the land” in Kampong Bharu. “I hope the opposition will not play on the sentiment that the government wants to take over the land and push the Malays aside,” he has been quoted as saying.
The MP for the parliamentary area Titiwangsa, which includes Kampong Bharu, is Datuk Johari Abdul Ghani. He has been quoted as saying that the government will not acquire the Kampong Bharu land by force. “If the people do not want to develop the land, no-one can force them. But, if they want, they can work out joint ventures with developers,” he told the Star newspaper.
Johari has said KL city hall should not allocate any more land for high-end condominiums and apartments, but should focus on approving the construction of units for mid-income earners.
Mohamad Shafiq says that if the regulations were changed and foreigners were allowed to buy land in Kampong Bharu, the price would rise to between 1,500 and 2,000 ringgits (between 450 and 600 US$) per square foot.
Currently, land facing a main road is valued at about 700 ringgits (about 210 US$) per square foot, and land inside the villages at about 300 to 500 ringgits (about 90 to 150 US$) per square foot.
One of the companies said to be eager to cash in is the government-owned agency UDA Holdings. The company reportedly has plans to build “executive homes” on a 1.1 hectare plot.
The development corporation hopes that government-linked companies such as Lembaga Tabung Haji, the funding board that helps pilgrims go to Mecca, and Permodalan Nasional Berhad, Malaysia’s biggest fund management company, will come on board.
Given the failure of so many development plans in the past, the corporation is focusing heavily on “development management”; how to deal with the multiple ownership in Kampong Bharu.
The plan to be revealed in March is likely to be more conceptual than detailed in terms of the actual buildings, but there’s an overall objective of 70,000 people on a Ground Floor Area of 90 million square feet.
In 2011, Mahathir Mohamad cited his administration’s inability to rehabilitate and develop Kampong Bharu as one of the failures during his 22 years as prime minister. It was difficult to trace heirs, he said, and landowners were demanding high prices. He said he hoped the government would be able to rebuild Kampong Bharu “so visitors would not see Malays in poverty in their own country”.
The streets in Kampong Bharu originally had British names, but most of them are now named after after rajas (kings) – Uda, Mahmud, Alang, Abdullah, and Muda Musa.
In a recent plan, developers said they would retain all road names relating to important Malay rulers, but there was talk at one stage of changing even the names with historical significance.
Jalan Raja Abdullah, for instance, would have become Corporate Street. That pretty well says it all.
For more photos of Kampong Bharu go to Kampong Bharu photo gallery.
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